Color Watch: Invaders From Mars (1953)

There has been one glaring deficiency in the movies we’ve chosen to discuss thus far: color. For the month of January, we’re expanding our palette by watching five color films from the 1920s to the 1950s. This week, Rodney and Samantha watched Invaders From Mars from 1953.

SAMANTHA: Invaders From Mars is the story of an alien spaceship that lands in the backyard of a young boy (Jimmy Hunt). His father becomes possessed by the Martians, so the boy seeks help, first from the police and then from his scientist friend, but slowly the town becomes infested with possessed people, and children are not exempt.

RODNEY: The tale of a dystopian world where you can’t trust those who may look exactly like you isn’t exactly unfamiliar territory during the Red Scare period of the early/mid 50’s, but this film does seem unique due to the perspective that it’s told by. The curiosity of the child leading to the discovery of the invasion hadn’t been handled before in this way, and I felt that the film was all the better for it.

S: This film is told from the boy's perspective,

and the use of minimal sets which seem conjured from his brain are an effective and visually pleasing way to illustrate the story. The sinister fence and encroaching sand that shelters the buried spacecraft is shown almost exclusively from afar below skies that look like a suspended painting. The laboratory and observatory are void of minor details and have a storybook quality. Our focus is on the important machines that might help restore the boy's parents to the people he knew and loved. The police station is especially noteworthy. The boy must run down a very long and narrow hallway to reach the intimidating officer at the front desk, which sits high and towers over him. The officer is clearly in authority, looking down at him condescendingly as the boy insists on seeing the chief. The director was also in charge of the production design, the legendary William Cameron Menzies, who is best known for his work on Gone With the Wind.

R: I also noted the storybook quality of the sets and visualization of the film. I also think that the use of Super Cinecolor, which, while probably unintended helped create the otherworldly atmosphere that is throughout. In the scenes where his parents turn on him and you realize that they were among the first to be possessed by the alien lifeforms, you genuinely feel for the child’s confusion.

S: Hunt is wonderful in the part. He looks and acts like a normal kid; his performance isn't affected. I talked to him once because he worked on Pitfall with Dick Powell and he remembered bits and pieces about the people he worked with throughout his career, but he was most impressed with working on fun sets and playing pretend off-camera.

R: I couldn’t help but remember while watching this that as a young boy, I had an early crush on Hillary Brooke who plays the mother in this film. My infatuation was due to her appearances on the Abbott & Costello Show, where she inexplicably played a glamorous actress (named Hillary Brooke) that lived in the same rat trap apartment house that Bud & Lou lived in. She was always so sweet to innocent Lou that I was taken by her. I don’t think I’d have felt the same way if I had been exposed to this film around the same time.

S: No, she is pretty intimidating here, more like a scary strict babysitter, not the kind of woman you'd expect a young boy to be attracted to.

This movie proves you don't need a lot of CGI to make an interesting sci-fi movie. Aside from a few explosions provided by the military, the action takes place offscreen. It is the transformation of the lively personalities into cold, calculating creatures that makes the aliens seem so terrible. When we finally see the aliens, some of the life is sucked out of the movie. The aliens are primitive, grown men (of varying body types) in green velvet jumpsuits running with their arms stiffly at their sides. They're acceptable goons, doing the bidding of a smaller intelligent beast in a glass case, but the amount footage spent on watching them run through bumpy cave tunnels feels excessive and slows the action down.

R: Some texts credit this film with the first time that we actually see aliens on the screen. I don’t buy that, mainly because I can think of half a dozen examples beforehand (The Purple Monster Strikes from 1945, Flying Disc Man From Mars from 1950, and Man From Planet X from 1951). What this does, however, is give us what very well may be the first time we see aliens in color. It’s fascinating and works well, but, as you note the latter third of the film falls into the trap of “Look at this thing that you haven’t seen before! And keep looking at it even though nothing happens!” While promising, I feel that the film slowly loses steam and eventually comes to an uninteresting halt. I’ll also go three stars, but primarily for the absolutely fascinating sense of atmosphere that it successfully creates. 3 stars.

S: 3 stars for me. The ending fizzles out but the setup is excellent.

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